Friday, August 28, 2015

You Know You Need One

Zucchini — it can be a tricky word in a spelling bee. But it’s not a tricky plant; it’s a terrific plant. The zucchini contains valuable antioxidants and is a good source of vitamins A and C and potassium. It’s also low in calories making it an excellent choice for dieters.

The trouble with zucchini begins when it comes time to dispose of the crop. Place a few zucchini out on the sidewalk with a FREE sign on them and next day your pile will have increased. To avoid unwanted donations, people in my neighbourhood make darn sure they lock their cars each night. If you happen to arrive at harvest time with more zucchini than you can find homes for, remember that the food bank will always be able to use them — and anything else your garden produces. In fact, an extra row or two planted especially for them is a worthwhile venture.

The origins of zucchini lie in Mexico where they were grown as far back as 7,000 to 5,500 BCE. They were an integral part of the ancient diet of corn, beans, and squashes. These foods, known as the three sisters, are still the mainstay of Mexican cuisine. Because the climate there is ideal for these plants, I imagine the Mexican people must have the same problem with overly productive zucchini as we do, so if you happen to vacation there, it’s a good idea to check your luggage before leaving.

This is probably how zucchini made it to Europe, secretly stuffed into the packs of returning explorers, along with cheap Aztec souvenirs and three or four years of dirty laundry. The zucchini eventually found its way to Italy where it received its current name. In France it’s known as the courgette, a name the folks in the UK have adopted, although they refer to a larger and plumper variety of zucchini as a vegetable marrow, apparently because it resembles bone marrow — I’ll stick with zucchini, thank you.

Farmers today are developing lots of hybrids. We no longer have to settle for plain old green. Look for yellow ones or a combination of green and yellow. There are round ones too, and one that is a cross between zucchini and the fluted patty pan squash.

Zucchini are a warm season plant and will shrivel at the first hint of frost. This has been a cool, wet spring, but now that the soil is warming up it’s about right to plant a few — two or three are plenty. Like all members of the squash family they can be started easily from seed, but it may be getting a little late. Depending on how early frost comes in fall, the fruit may not have time to develop, so I’d go with plants. They’re inexpensive and available at many garden centres.

Plant zucchini a couple of feet apart where they can receive plenty of sunshine — the more the better. As for soil, they won’t complain as long as it’s well drained. Add organic matter if you can, but they are light feeders. Feeding zucchini with a high nitrogen fertilizer will only encourage over-production of leaves and stems, and a well fed one can easily take over a veggie garden, so don’t use up the lawn fertilizer on them.

They like to be watered regularly, and deeply, but zucchini hate to be wet as mildew can develop on the large flat leaves. To discourage this, avoid watering with a sprinkler. This is where mulch such as wood chips or straw is useful — I like to use straw myself. Besides keeping weeds down and moisture in the soil it will keep fruit clean and healthy.

As the plant begins to grow, the flowers, precursors of fruit, won’t appear until the plant has developed fifteen or so leaves. The first to appear will usually be male and won’t produce fruit. If you can spot a small swelling at the base of the flower, it’s a female and will grow on into a fruit. If there’s only a prickly stem, it’s a male. The male flowers can be picked off and eaten in a salad, but some are required for pollination of the females. Insects, primarily bees, will take care of this job. If bee activity is low, female flowers are likely to drop.

Other insects will take up pest duty. The cucumber Beetle is the worst of the bunch, attacking any members of the cucurbita family. Cucumber Beetles are either striped or spotted, and like to feed on the leaves of the plants. They can cause a lot of damage as they spread disease from one plant to another. Thrips and cutworms will also have a go at your plants too. I’d use insecticidal soap to discourage them.

Zucchini are susceptible to powdery mildew and bacterial wilt, diseases that are most common in hot and humid weather. A strong, healthy plant will be more resistant to these problems. Blossom end rot can also be a problem in dry weather. Zucchini seem to keep on growing without too much trouble. They’re best picked before they get too large because the bigger ones can be tough and lacking in flavour. But if you do want to try for the record, it’s around 2.5 meters — almost nine feet long.

Zucchini are such productive plants that first time growers, especially children, on seeing the rate at which the plant grows and the bounty it produces will be spurred on to try other plants that are much easier to spell, like peas and beans.

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